Circular causality

Before any systematic interpretation, the description of the known facts shows that the fate of an excitation is determined by its relation to the whole of the organic state and to the simultaneous or preceding excitations, and that the relations between the organism and its milieu are not relations of linear causality but of circular causality.

— Merleau-Ponty (1942, 15)

The idea of circular causality in complex systems goes back at least to Kant, whose Critique of Judgment prefigured current concepts of self-organization and autopoiesis (Thompson 2007). His stipulation that the parts of an organism ‘combine into the unity of a whole because they are reciprocally cause and effect of their form’ (Thompson 2007, 134) anticipates the concept of circular causality as explicated by Walter Freeman. For Kant, ‘the fact that organisms are so complex, so full of feedback loops in which each part is “cause and effect of itself” means that we cannot possibly describe them as machines’ (Depew and Weber 1995, 104).

Kant is sure that the collapse of functional processes into mere mechanical effects will never be reached in analyses of organisms. His point, however, is that whenever we see it, we must be willing to reject what he called external teleology, which collapses into mechanical cause and effect, so that the genuine inspiration we can derive from the internal teleology of organic integrity will not be exposed to ridicule.

— Depew and Weber (1995, 104)

Lacking the tools of nonlinear dynamics, Kant saw no way to ‘naturalize’ these ideas. He argued instead that our investigation of organic nature is guided by ‘a remote analogy with our own causality’ (Thompson 2007, 137) and is therefore grounded in teleological thinking. To put it another way, we have to see other organisms as guided from within because we ourselves are.

Darwin’s theory, ‘in which external rather than internal causes do most of the explanatory work’ (Depew and Weber 1995, 110), was an attempt to bring biological (evolutionary) theory within the respectable pale of Newtonian science. Despite its success, it now appears to be a stepping-stone to a more comprehensive theory recognizing organic unity as collaborating with myriad mechanisms, by means of operational closure, to determine how systems live and move.

Thirdness, Thought and Representation

In the third of Peirce’s 1903 Lowell lectures (CP 1.521-39), he gave a ‘sketch’ of phenomenological investigation ‘merely to lead up to Thirdness and to the particular kind and aspect of Thirdness which is the sole object of logical study’ (CP 1.535). Along the way, he showed that ‘Secondness is an essential part of Thirdness though not of Firstness, and Firstness is an essential element of both Secondness and Thirdness’ (530). He also showed that the exemplar of genuine Thirdness is the process of representation (532); and that ‘every genuine triadic relation involves thought or meaning’ (534). In the abstract, it is clear that genuine Thirdness requires a genuine triadic relation. But how is this analytical fact related to the common human experience we call “thought”?

Now in genuine Thirdness, the first, the second, and the third are all three of the nature of thirds, or thought, while in respect to one another they are first, second, and third. The first is thought in its capacity as mere possibility; that is, mere mind capable of thinking, or a mere vague idea. The second is thought playing the role of a Secondness, or event. That is, it is of the general nature of experience or information. The third is thought in its role as governing Secondness. It brings the information into the mind, or determines the idea and gives it body. It is informing thought, or cognition. But take away the psychological or accidental human element, and in this genuine Thirdness we see the operation of a sign.

— CP 1.537 (also quoted in Chapter 7)

In order to purify the concept of genuine Thirdness, we ought to drop from it any ‘accidental’ elements that might cling to it because they are associated with the common experience we call “thought” or “cognition.” So let us abstract (or prescind) from that phenomenon the formal essence of genuine Thirdness. When we do this, what we see is ‘the operation of a sign’ (i.e. semiosis). But “sign” is another word which, in common usage, may be associated with elements accidental to genuine Thirdness rather than essential to it. If we wish to find what is really elementary to representation, and thus to genuine Thirdness, perhaps we ought to have a more technical term than “sign” for the first correlate of a genuine triadic relation.

… I must begin the examination of representation by defining representation a little more accurately. In the first place, as to my terminology, I confine the word representation to the operation of a sign or its relation to the object for the interpreter of the representation. The concrete subject that represents I call a sign or a representamen. I use these two words, sign and representamen, differently. By a sign I mean anything which conveys any definite notion of an object in any way, as such conveyers of thought are familiarly known to us. Now I start with this familiar idea and make the best analysis I can of what is essential to a sign, and I define a representamen as being whatever that analysis applies to.

— CP 1.540

Once again, Peirce begins with the familiar concept (“sign”), and tries by analysis to extract (or prescind) what is essential to it by subtracting its ‘accidental human element.’ To distinguish this more precise concept of the ‘subject that represents’ from the more familiar concept of “sign,” Peirce calls it representamen, a term virtually synonymous with ‘sign’ but more analytically exact for logical purposes. Peirce had been using the term in this way for decades – it even appears once in his ‘New List of Categories’ (1867) – but he would soon come to regret this, as he admitted in a letter drafted to Victoria Welby in July 1905:

I use ‘sign’ in the widest sense of the definition. It is a wonderful case of an almost popular use of a very broad word in almost the exact sense of the scientific definiton. … I formerly preferred the word representamen. But there was no need of this horrid long word. … My notion in preferring “representamen” was that it would seem more natural to apply it to representatives in legislatures, to deputies of various kinds, etc. I admit still that it aids the comprehension of the definition to compare it carefully with such cases. But they certainly depart from the definition [of sign given earlier in this letter], in that this requires that the action of the sign as such shall not affect the object represented. A legislative representative is, on the contrary, expected in his functions to improve the condition of this constituents; and any kind of attorney, even if he has no discretion, is expected to affect the condition of his principal. … I thought of a representamen as taking the place of the thing; but a sign is not a substitute.

— Peirce to Welby (SS 193)

After this, with a few exceptions, Peirce abandoned the use of ‘representamen’ as a synonym for ‘sign.’ The continuation of his 1903 Lowell lecture shows that even while using the term, he was aware that this usage had some disadvantages:

… I define a representamen as being whatever that analysis applies to. If therefore I have committed an error in my analysis, part of what I say about signs will be false. For in that case a sign may not be a representamen. The analysis is certainly true of the representamen, since that is all that word means. Even if my analysis is correct, something may happen to be true of all signs, that is of everything that, antecedently to any analysis, we should be willing to regard as conveying a notion of anything, while there might be something which my analysis describes of which the same thing is not true. In particular, all signs convey notions to human minds; but I know no reason why every representamen should do so.

So ‘a sign may not be a representamen,’ and as Peirce said in the ‘Speculative Grammar’ section of his Syllabus, ‘there may be Representamens that are not Signs’ (EP2:273). The pitfalls of polyversity, it seems, are only papered over by inventing technical terms which are more exact and ‘scientific’ than ordinary terms. In most of his semiotic writings, Peirce compromised by pairing the terms ‘sign’ and ‘representamen’ in contexts which make it clear that they are virtually interchangeable, as he did in the Lowell lecture (CP 1.540) quoted above. Here are some more examples taken from his various definitions of the concept:

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign.

— unidentified fragment, c. 1897.

A sign, or representamen, involves a plural relation, for it may be defined as something in which an element of cognition is so embodied as to convey that cognition from the thought of the deliverer of the sign, in which that cognition was embodied, to the thought of the interpreter of the sign, in which that cognition is to be embodied.

— ‘On the Logic of Quantity’ (MS 16, 1895?) [PM]

Indeed, representation necessarily involves a genuine triad. For it involves a sign, or representamen, of some kind, outward or inward, mediating between an object and an interpreting thought.

— ‘The Logic of Mathematics’ (CP 1.480, 1896)

The principles and analogies of Phenomenology enable us to describe, in a distant way, what the divisions of triadic relations must be. … no part of this work has, as yet, been satisfactorily performed, except in some measure for the most important class of triadic relations, those of signs, or representamens, to their objects and interpretants.

— ‘Nomenclature and Divisions of Triadic Relations’ (EP2:289, CP 2.233)

A Sign is a representamen of which some interpretant is a cognition of a mind. Signs are the only representamens that have been much studied.

— ‘Nomenclature and Divisions of Triadic Relations’ (EP2:291, CP 2.242)

A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. The triadic relation is genuine, that is its three members are bound together by it in a way that does not consist in any complexus of dyadic relations.… this, and more, is involved in the familiar idea of a Sign; and as the term Representamen is here used, nothing more is implied. A Sign is a Representamen with a mental Interpretant. Possibly there may be Representamens that are not Signs.

— ‘Syllabus’ (EP2:272, CP 2.274, 1903)

All of the above make it clear that the sign, or representamen, is one correlate of a genuine triadic relation. Some later semioticians have chosen to emphasize the triadicity of semiosis by means of a terminological distinction between sign and representamen which is entirely different from Peirce’s. This post-Peircean distinction was then attributed to Peirce, for instance by Winfried Nöth in his Handbook of Semiotics (1990, 42):

Theoretically, Peirce distinguished clearly between the sign, which is the complete triad, and the representamen, which is its first correlate. Terminologically, however, there is an occasional ambiguity because Peirce sometimes also used the less technical term sign instead of representamen…. Once, Peirce even speaks of the ‘sign, or representamen’ …

But as we have seen above, this pairing of the terms as synonymous is the usual practice in Peirce, not the exception. Nöth does not cite even one specific example where Peirce uses the term ‘sign’ to denote ‘the complete triad,’ and none of Peirce’s dozens of definitions of sign actually do this.

There is one passage in the late Peirce which does say that ‘Signs … are triadic’ (CP 6.344, 1909). The ‘triad’ here, however, is not sign-object-interpretant but subject-predicate-copula: a sign is triadic because it ‘denotes a subject, and signifies a form of fact, which latter it brings into connexion with the former.’ The context of this statement sums up Peirce’s late view of thought and its Thirdness as achieving completeness or perfection in the triadic composition of a proposition:

The mode of being of the composition of thought, which is always of the nature of the attribution of a predicate to a subject, is the living intelligence which is the creator of all intelligible reality, as well as of the knowledge of such reality. It is the entelechy, or perfection of being.

So, then, there are these three modes of being: first, the being of a feeling, in itself, unattached to any subject, which is merely an atmospheric possibility, a possibility floating in vacuo, not rational yet capable of rationalization; secondly, there is the being that consists in arbitrary brute action upon other things, not only irrational but anti-rational, since to rationalize it would be to destroy its being; and thirdly, there is living intelligence from which all reality and all power are derived; which is rational necessity and necessitation.

A feeling is what it is, positively, regardless of anything else. Its being is in it alone, and it is a mere potentiality. A brute force, as, for example, an existent particle, on the other hand, is nothing for itself; whatever it is, it is for what it is attracting and what it is repelling: its being is actual, consists in action, is dyadic. That is what I call existence. A reason has its being in bringing other things into connexion with each other; its essence is to compose: it is triadic, and it alone has a real power.

Signs, the only things with which a human being can, without derogation, consent to have any transaction, being a sign himself, are triadic; since a sign denotes a subject, and signifies a form of fact, which latter it brings into connexion with the former.

CP 6.341-44

Here sign is virtually synonymous with proposition, which does incorporate a triad of functional components. Those components had been classified by Peirce in 1903 as sign types (icon, index, rheme etc.), but nothing less than a proposition (or dicisign) is complete enough in itself to have a genuinely triadic internal structure, or to convey information. Just as genuine Thirdness involves Secondness and Firstness, the proposition involves both index and icon. Peirce had expressed this earlier (for instance in ‘New Elements’) by saying that icon and index were ‘degenerate’ relative to the symbol, which in that context is virtually synonymous with proposition. But it is precisely the involvement of iconic and indexical functions that makes a sign informational, and thus constitutes its genuine Thirdness. This enclosure of triadicity within the complete sign as ‘entelechy’ is, we might say, the implicit closure of semiosis.

Open to closure

The actual universe is a thing wide open, but
rationalism makes systems, and systems must be closed.

— William James (1907)

William James made this remark in the first lecture of his 1907 series on Pragmatism, which was an attempt to remedy some of the defects of ‘rationalism.’ A century later, both science and religion are still struggling with the legacy which defined humankind as ‘the rational animal.’ But this remark by James does not take into account the fact that nature makes systems too. We are rational in that we make reasons, religions, sciences and external guidance systems in order to make sense of the world – but if these systems must be closed, it’s because their makers share this property of closure with all complex adaptive systems. It takes a closed system to conceive of the actual universe as ‘a thing wide open.’ ‘Using boundaries, systems can open and close at the same time, separating internal interdependencies from system/environment interdependencies and relating both to each other’ (Luhmann 1995, 29). Moreover, the ‘openness’ of our universe that we value most – its ability to support living, learning and evolving – is realized in it by the closure of natural systems, specifically teleodynamic systems.

The circle closes

Real time is the wheel reinventing itself.

Emergence has in an orderly way moved from protons to philosophers. At this level there is a kind of closing of the loop, because philosophers think about big bangs, protons, and all the other hierarchies connected by emergences. The emerging world turns inward and thinks about itself. As George Wald once said, a physicist is the atom’s way of thinking about atoms.

— Morowitz (2002, 183-4)

All human creation comes back to that point of transition when we begin manipulating existence guided by the partial revelation of that very existence. We only create a sense of good and evil as well as norms of conscionable behavior once we know about our own nature and that of others like us. Creativity itself – the ability to generate new ideas and artifacts – requires more than consciousness can ever provide. It requires abundant fact and skill memory, abundant working memory, fine reasoning ability, language. But consciousness is ever present in the process of creativity, not only because its light is indispensable, but because the nature of its revelations guide the process of creation, in one way or another, more or less intensely. In a curious way, whatever we do invent, from norms of ethics and law to music and literature to science and technology, is either directly mandated or inspired by the revelations of existence that consciousness offers us. Moreover, in one way or another, more so or less, the inventions have an effect on existence as revealed, they alter it for better or for worse. There is a circle of influence – existence, consciousness, creativity – and the circle closes.

Damasio (1999, 315-16)

You must reap before you can sow. (Else where will you get your seeds?)


Perceiving, imagining and recognizing are processes taking place in a sentient system and taking time to transpire. A brain, unlike a mirror, takes time to reflect.

Presence is temporary, knowledge and memory are temporal. There are no coded symbols filed in the brain awaiting access; the only physical tracks laid down by learning or experience are changes in connectivity. Remembering and recognition are the activation, the actual following, of those tracks, which always happens in parallel with many other ongoing processes in the brain. Memories as traces of past processes are implicated in those processes, and we can explicate them only by means of external signs which have their own implications. Personal history, like the historical or scientific consensus, is a product of externalization.

This is the time. And this is the record of the time.

— Laurie Anderson, ‘From the Air’

Experiencing is the little current within the flow of time trying to make sense of history – like tears in rain, as Roy Batty said.